Chiang Mai, Pai & Koh Samet

August 5th – August 22nd

Chiang Mai



Chiang Mai is the largest city in the north of Thailand, full of backpackers who want to explore the surrounding jungle and mountains to do things like caring for elephants or white-water rafting or zip-lining. The old city is littered with the ubiquitous temples and is fringed by the old city walls, just outside which are markets of various sizes, all selling handmade wares and delicious foods. We liked it here.  

 
It was, as ever, the food that we wanted to crack first, so we enrolled on a cooking class with a delightfully cheerful man called Sammy. Sammy was one of those perma-stoned characters who giggled uncontrollably all the time at fairly innocuous things like saying his name (haha!) or chopping some lemongrass (hehe!) or finding out that one of his class had chilli in her eye (teeheehee!). This class was a bargain – we spent the whole day on his farm, cooking five dishes and even finding time to nap in his hammocks, plus we were given another cookbook. Now there’s really no excuse for us not cooking for some of you when we get back. 

Sammy laughing to himself at an assortment of vegetables. HA!

Red curry


We decided to spend some time exploring the local area ourselves and rented a moped for a couple of days. From this vantage point we saw all of Chiang Mai’s city walls (three times in fact, mainly because I developed a strange but debilitating aversion to turning right), but once we were brave enough we ascended the nearest mountain to visit the Huay Keaw and Monthathan waterfalls, and the Doi Suthep temple which sat looking over all of Chiang Mai. Despite the regular 1.00pm hour of heavy rainfall, we had fun and it would be correct to say we didn’t have one hairy moment on the bike…

A waterfall


Pai



Pai sits somewhere in the mountains near Chiang Mai, and is famed for its relaxed atmosphere. Cool people would call this a ‘vibe’. A kind of food festival springs up at night as the streets become lined with delicious and tempting stalls selling Thai food, falafel, waffles, barbecued food and more. We climbed up to our guesthouse quite pleased with the panoramic views overlooking the valley, although we did find the couple who ran the place very odd, not least because both of them called everybody ‘darling’ but also because there was a real sense that neither knew what was going on. Fawlty Towers was very much the blueprint here.  

 
On our first day in Pai we walked around a bit and had a beer by the river.  

 
On our second day in Pai we lazed in our hammock and watched a bird build a nest.  

 
On the third day in Pai, at three in the morning, a man broke open our window, leaned in and stole Lauren’s bag. Lauren woke upon hearing the noise and saw the thief, who immediately scarpered. There was little in the bag other than our passports, but we didn’t realise the bag had gone until later on – sleep can do that to you. So it was, 5 hours after the bag was stolen, we reported it to our guest house – to Basil and Manuel, the ones who called everyone darling. The lady of the house shouted at us, telling us she was anglee, darling – I told her I was a fan of her films but we had more pressing matters at hand. She began swearing in English but wasn’t using the words in the right context or in the right places in her sentences, which I had a real urge to correct but was too busy using my teacher voice to stop her shouting. A farcical trip to the police station followed, where all five police officers interrogated Ang Lee, Lauren and myself, repeating the same questions over and over as if we had somehow stolen our own passports, before taking a phone call from a French lady who had found the bag and all its belongings in a bush and had handed it in to our guest house. The whole of the police force raced up the hill and Lauren, Ang Lee and I had a hug. For her efforts, the French lady was immediately suspected (by Ang Lee) of having taken the bag, despite Lauren’s insistence that she’d seen a man at the window. 

CSI: Pai

On the fourth day we moved to a lovely riverside bungalow.  

  

On the fifth day we cycled to waterfalls and a canyon. 

 

A viewpoint up a very steep hill


 

On the sixth day there was a lot of rain through the night. Lauren woke up at 5.30am, looked out of the window and saw the river was no longer down the grassy verge, but right outside our door. It had burst its banks, creating a scene which we’ve only witnessed before in news reports. The water was a thick brown sludge, full of chairs and trees and other debris, and we only had one option – to jump in. Somehow we packed most of our things in around three minutes (something Lauren has never done before), and into the water we went, wading through waist-high muck, trying to ignore the giant insects and concentrate on just getting away. The rate at which the water kept rising was unbelievable – when we first looked out of the window we took a picture because we thought it was novel; about a minute later we realised it was a flash flood and we could be in serious trouble. 
 

Enjoying the hammock. The river is just visible

The view at 5.30am


 

I don’t think either of us would mind admitting that we’ve never been more frightened. The water was getting deeper, at one point almost neck-high, Lauren slipped and struggled her way through and all we could hear was rushing water and screams for help from other stranded tourists. Thankfully, we got out; we went to help others still stuck at the bottom and throwing away an assortment of clothes seemed fairly trivial afterwards. Somehow, we were lucky – only a few scratches and bruises, a few items thrown, but nothing important went.  

After this, we sought refuge at the only high point we knew of – Ang Lee’s guest house. We were filthy, tired and shaking, and left Pai shortly afterwards. We headed back to Chiang Mai grateful to have avoided injury or worse – clothes and books and the like can be replaced. 

The river pre-flood. Below is what it grew into


You can see why God had himself a rest on the seventh day – we were absolutely knackered. We’d earmarked a trek in the jungle which included either white-water rafting or a bamboo boat cruise but cancelled that, and instead spent the day picking thorns and stones out of each other’s feet. We briefly contemplated coming home early but, both being competitive souls, we didn’t want to admit defeat, despite not knowing what we were playing or what the rules were.  

To borrow from my lovely Nana: we liked Pai, but Pai didn’t like us. 


Koh Samet 

Our final stop before Bangkok was Koh Samet, 3 hours east of the capital and all it took to get there was 24 hours of travel via a combination of taxi, train, tuk tuk, minibus, boat and a songthaew. This idyllic island has three roads, fourteen white beaches, waters so clear you can spot the jellyfish a mile off, and not much else. It was perfect.

Bliss

Bangkok: an ending 

It has been near enough 5 months since we saw our parents, our families, our friends. We’ve had the most brilliant time, seeing things we’d never thought we’d see and doing things we’d never thought we’d do. We’ve loved it. We’ve found out more about each other than we’d ever thought we’d know, or wanted to know. We now know that we are as equally as stubborn as one another. I’ve learnt that Lauren is always right; she’s learnt that I am always right (unless she is). Lauren has taught me how rubbish I am at looking for stuff (I couldn’t find the haystack, let alone the needle); I’ve learned that she is the most indecisive person in the world (she thinks, maybe).  

   

Five months isn’t a long time, but consider what’s happened since we left:  

– the Boro got promoted 

– the Euros, Glastonbury and the Olympics came and went 

– Brexit and the ensuing political chaos

– the deaths of Prince, Muhammad Ali, Johan Cruyff, Ronnie Corbett, Victoria Wood, Caroline Aherne and the Labour party

– Maz and Pete moved house  

 
It’s all change, innit? It’d be worth considering whether we’ve changed as a result of our sojourn away from everyone else – possibly; possibly not. Maybe it’s for others to judge. What we have come to realise is how wonderful other humans are.  

Now, that may come as a surprise. To be honest, we can take or leave the vast majority of other people, with their selfie sticks and their man-buns and their anklets and their raised inflections. But on those two days in Pai, our faith in other people was more than restored.  

Basically, a wonderful trip around the world was very nearly ruined by one thieving prick in a vest. We’ve met brilliant people all the way through, all doing brilliant things. But there will always be the occasional idiot. The idiot who thinks racism or sexism is ok, or insulting locals is acceptable, or stealing is a justifiable way of getting by. However, in Pai, that French girl made a choice to help and saved us no end of trouble. The floods were something we’ll not forget in a hurry – again, people helped each other, either to carry bags, or to guide others through the mess, or to give strangers refuge. We’ve met so many wonderful people that it’s only possible to realise that people are inherently good, and we will take that with us.  

The best people of all are those we’ve missed, and we can’t wait to see you all. We will bore you with our photos and we won’t stop until you’ve seen them all.  

Cheers


That’s it then. I’ve been told I can be quite abrupt. As such, the blog will end on this full-stop.

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Cambodia

25th July – 4th August 

Phnom Penh 

Cambodia immediately struck us as a place that was constantly contradicting itself. Big shiny hotels shadowed locals who were bathing and washing clothes in the river, big shiny cars battled for space on the pot-holed roads with rusty old mopeds and big shiny smiles from all Cambodians disguised the country’s bloody history. Neither of us knew much about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot’s regime, not least that it was so recent (one of the generals was only prosecuted as recently as 2011), and so the days out at the Killing Fields and S21 were informative in a saddening kind of way. Everything was detailed so graphically – how people were starved, beaten and killed – and the numbers involved were staggering. At the Killing Fields there was still evidence of bone fragments and clothing in the ground, and this was before you arrived at the collection of skulls of unidentified victims. Unlike the one tourist snapping selfies in front of mass graves, taking photographs didn’t really feel right, but we did think this was nice, all things considered. 

Friendship bracelets left by visitors


It’d be fair to say the Cambodian people have not had an easy time of it, but they somehow remain the smiliest, loveliest people we’ve come across. They also have beautiful cheekbones, skin and hair, but that’s by the by. There are lots of socially-conscious projects here that are designed to help youngsters in particular. The one we supported, unsurprisingly, involved eating lots of food at a restaurant where the chefs and serving staff were predominantly from poor backgrounds and/or had no education. ‘Twas the best food we’d had for a long time. 

The Grand Palace

Siem Reap

Siem Reap is a small town that is used as a gateway to Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world. There are hundreds of temples of all sizes, like Bayon, the one with lots of faces on it, and Ta Phrom, the Tomb Raider temple. They were all hugely impressive and had an almost eerie sense of calm within them, despite being trampled through by idiot tourists like us. We were supposed to celebrate our anniversary by watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat but our hotel forgot to book it for us. I was annoyed. 

Angkor Wat

Ta Phrom – the Tomb Raider temple

The old city gates

Instead we celebrated by visiting the circus, which was another tick in the done-something-good box, as the performers were all youngsters from around the country, and then found yet more food outlets that helped locals. Cambodians – so bloody lovely. 

The man in the blue shirt was so handsome and strong

These two held this pose for a fair while



Bangkok again

It was back to Bangkok for a couple of nights on a plane so small that I was sure someone just picked it up and threw it into the air when we were taking off. Nothing to report from our time here really apart from an impromptu night out with a man from Middlesbrough and his Irish drinking partner. Their Thai wives had given them and their other friends the scary nickname of the Hell Gang, as they’d get up to all kinds of hijinks – a bit like a post-midlife-crisis version of The Hangover. As we settled into the evening, we were told we’d be meeting a man called the Dagger; understandably we were a little worried about this, but the Dagger turned out to be the most stereotypically lovely, genial and genuine Irishman in the world so we quickly fell in love with him. We have an official invite to the Bangkok St. Patrick’s ball – I just need to get the time off work. 

Our final two weeks (how did that happen?) are going to be spent in the north of Thailand, before hopefully finding a beach near Bangkok for a few days. Then that’s it. You’ll never have to read this blog again.

រហូតដល់​ពេលក្រោយ

Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh, Mui Ne, Hoi An and Danang

6th July – 24th July

Other than Lauren having to sit in front of a man who had been threatening to kill someone prior to boarding, the 22 hours of flying were ok, full of nationalities from every corner of the globe. It coincided with the end of Ramadan, at which point singing broke out among some of the Muslim contingent, and one family cracked open a box of Quality Street to share with the whole plane which was a lovely thing to do. We’d really missed Quality Street. 

Bangkok

We were only using Bangkok as a stop-off to other places as we had both visited before, so we treated ourselves to a nice hotel and caught up on some sleep. A friend of mine (hello Ali) works in the city and was happy to take us out for dinner at a place called Cabbages and Condoms, which works to promote sexual health. A percentage of your bill goes to various charities, and condoms are used to decorate the restaurant (much classier than that sentence sounds) and are offered instead of after-dinner mints. Definitely not as tasty though.

Make up your own pun for this…

Other stuff we did and saw was Soi Cowboy, a neon strip of bars where ‘dancing’ girls will ‘dance’ with you in return for money; visited Wat Pho, the enormous reclining Buddha; went to Chatachuk Market, a sweatbox of a day out where you can buy antiques, clothes, food, souvenirs and more for next to nothing, and visited the Grand Palace. The Palace is an incredible set of buildings and temples, glittering with gold and embellished with precious stones, but it is also the busiest place on Earth, and made us both appreciate some of the oft-derided strands of ‘Britishness’. We haven’t got much to shout about at the moment, but at least we can queue and show manners and not physically elbow people out of the way – there’s something to be said for that, isn’t there? As a result of our trip to the palace, we never want to visit China. 

Guarding the Grand Palace


One of the greatest things about this part of the world is the food, and we quickly cottoned on to the fact that the best restaurants were those with the most Thai people in them. Stir fried rice with green curry, tom yum soup, phad Thai and spring rolls are just some of the delights we’ve enjoyed, often sat at roadside cafes rather than in an air-conditioned restaurant. Proper and perfect.

Thrilled

Ho Chi Minh City



After losing my wedding ring and having a card cloned, I was half-expecting the plane to crash on the way to Asia – people say these things come in threes. Well, they don’t. They come in fives and sixes. Firstly I received a ridiculous phone bill after sorting the card situation out. Then, foolishly, we hadn’t checked the visa situation for Vietnam so had to buy emergency ones for £350, which is clearly our own stupid fault but we’d have felt much better if we could have blamed somebody else. This revelation meant we were furiously filling in online applications at the check-in gate, leaving us short of time so we had to sprint through the airport to board the flight with moments to spare. 

Once we’d got to Ho Chi Minh, a man holding a piece of paper with our names scribbled across it took our passports away and left us sat for 30 minutes, not knowing what the hell was happening. Finally he returned, ushering us towards the immigration official who took one look at us and just shook his head. At this point the piece-of-paper-man must’ve seen the onset of tears and put his arm around us, explained something to the official and escorted us through himself. That was nice. The visa we’d received was for 15 days, and to extend it our passports would need to be sent off somewhere for a week – we’d no intention of staying anywhere for a week because we had many places to visit, meaning we were faced with either leaving Vietnam early or paying even more money to get an express visa extension. To top it all off, we had an argument with a taxi driver who was blatantly trying to rip us off. 

Other than that, we’d arrived in Vietnam without a hitch. 

So, Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon but renamed after the leader who was in charge during the Vietnam war. I hate the word crazy (also on this list: banter, maverick and meeting), but it is the only one to use to describe this city. Mopeds swarm the streets (and often the footpaths) as families make their way to and from here and there, creating a guttural and incessant buzz that never quietens. Trying to cross a road is a bit like that scene in Game of Thrones where Jon Snow is descended upon by Ramsey Bolton’s army, only instead of horses and swords there are mopeds with families of five perched on them, or men holding snakes or fridges.

Vehicles and pedestrians blurring into one

In Ho Chi Minh we visited the War Remnants museum, a memorial of sorts to the Vietnam war, which was in equal parts harrowing and depressing. The torture and genocide inflicted upon the Viet Cong was graphically detailed and was understandably too much for some visitors. The after-effects of the war, particularly Agent Orange, are still being felt today. We also went to the Cu Chi tunnels, 200km of intricate underground routes which allowed the Vietnamese to hide from and ambush the Americans, which was another serious day taking in serious matter, lightened somewhat by our tour guide who insisted on doing bizarre mimes to show how people might have died. 

Big chopper

Going underground at Cu Chi

Mui Ne
An unusual bus (three rows of bunk beds) took us to Mui Ne, a beach resort five hours away from Ho Chi Minh which was full of tourists and half the female population of Drogheda. Other than a walk along the beach, we did little more than lie around the pool and eat. Therefore the only photograph we have is of this coconut.

This coconut



Hoi An



We jumped back on the bunk-bed bus for a spectacularly uncomfortable journey to Hoi An, 17 hours away from the above coconut. Its old town is a UNESCO world heritage site, full of winding lanes through markets, pagodas and temples, while the more modern part stretches across rivers and rice fields. At night the old town becomes a heaving market, lit up only by the Chinese lanterns hanging precariously from windows and doorways. It’s got a lot of Chinese influence but we don’t really know why. 

A smiling assassin

Our main activity here was to go to a cooking class. This started with a trip to the market to buy ingredients, then we congregated at our chef’s house. There were 12 of us in total, and by chance we’d all chosen to cook different dishes, so the day turned into a bit of a tasting menu. We had salads, spring rolls and stir fries, and Lauren and I tried to recreate traditional Vietnamese dishes called cuo lau and pho bo (which contain too many ingredients to explain here but they are basically noodle soups/broths) and didn’t do too badly either. All the food we tasted was so fresh, much more than at home when the flavour is boiled out of everything, so hopefully we can put our new-found skills to use when we return. 

You’ll see me up the Asda like this fairly soon

We couldn’t stand the heat but had to stay in the kitchen



We spent a lot of time cycling around the town, as is the local way, and got mightily sunburnt in the process. Our travels took us to An Bang beach, possibly the longest stretch of golden sand ever, to more temples and pagodas and to various souvenir shops where we bought all manner of tat. 

Chinese temple

Danang

The final stop in Vietnam was in Danang, a smallish city 45 minutes outside of Hoi An. There’s not much here, as an hour’s search for a restaurant will testify to, but we did go to the Marble Mountain, one of five jutting hills that have no place in a city as flat as this one. Inside the mountain are carved Buddha figures, temples, shrines, pagodas, and thousands more Chinese people. The best thing about Danang was its dragon bridge. Look at it!

Dragon bridge!


Then we boarded a 17 hour train back to Ho Chi Minh, ready to bus it to Cambodia. I’ve enjoyed Vietnam but won’t miss it – Lauren has enjoyed it more. She likes lawlessness and people trying to scam you all the while. I prefer knowing what’s going on.

Onwards!

Rio de Janeiro, Ilha Grande and São Paulo 

June 22nd – July 5th

Rio de Janeiro

We extended our stay in Rio as much as we could before we felt we’d exhausted all our options and had to move on. For the remainder of our time in the city we sunbathed, walked through the Tijuca national park, spotting more marmosets and a brown howler monkey, and we went to see Christ the Redeemer twice. The first time was so cloudy that we couldn’t see him despite being stood at his feet, but the second was a gloriously hot day and we ran up and down the hill in time to get back for the beach. 

Cloudy Jesus

Sunny Jesus

Our brown howler monkey friend

 

We think Rio might be the best place we’ve been so far; the only reason it might not be top of our imaginary league table is because the food is only a 5/10. Most Brazilians seem to exist on a diet of cheese or deep-fried bolinhos or coxinhas (basically meat, surrounded in potato, wrapped in a plastic bag and battered). However, for beaches, walks, views, shopping and pretty much everything else, it is ace. Therefore Rio gets a solid 9.58 on the SCLC index. 

Ilha Grande

Onwards we travelled, south to the Big Island that lies somewhere between Rio and São Paulo. Ilha Grande is the picture of Brazil that my imagination painted: the island is just one giant lush forest surrounded by crystal-clear turquoise seas lapping against the odd secluded golden beach. It’s a kind of paradise. 

Lagoa Azul on Ilha Grande

It also has no vehicles on it, so we travelled by foot to other beaches, taking what the locals had generously labelled as trails (one ‘path’ led us through an old man’s back garden and another had us paddling through the sea). We were also pleased to avoid the poisonous snakes that we’d been warned about.

This man rowed about trying to sell his crusty biscuits to everyone


However, two other dangers reared their heads. Firstly, we were busy snorkelling in one of the lagoons when the threat of jellyfish became too much, so we swam away as quickly as we could. As someone who is not good in the water, swimming quickly tends to involve thrashing about a lot and spitting water out of my mouth, so my attention and focus was on keeping up with Lauren and not drowning. At some point my wedding ring slipped away and fell to the bottom of the sea. Ah well. As long as it’s not a metaphor for this trip it’ll all be alright. 

The second mishap was when someone cloned my bank card and tried to spend £740 on hammers and nails. Thankfully the bank thought it was odd and cancelled the card which leaves us hoping it doesn’t happen again.

São Paulo 

Our final days in South America have been spent in São Paulo, a ridiculously large city which must have the largest collection of dreary grey skyscrapers in the world. Sadly it also has an inordinate number of homeless people too, far worse than anything we’ve seen anywhere else and its quite sad to see, particularly as São Paulo is regarded as a wealthy place. 

By far the best building in São Paulo – Sé Cathedral

It wasn’t all doom and gloom though – Lauren took me to the football museum (yes, really – but there was scant evidence of Juninho so it loses a point); we went out and about at night for a final caipirinha, and we visited Batman Alley, a site famed for its collection of graffiti and street art and whatnot. 

Getting a high score against a computerised goalkeeper in bare feet, making all the other children feel useless. Goooooalll!


So that’s it – our 3 months in South America have come to an end and we await what definitely won’t be a terrifying flight across THE WHOLE WORLD in order to get to Thailand. We’ve loved it here, but we are excited to move on.

The diazepam is ready. 

P.S. We’ve had so many people contacting us this week too – no idea why, but that has been lovely. Thanks!

Iguazu Falls, Florianopolis and Rio de Janeiro

May 29th – June 22nd

Iguazu Falls

Iguazu was on our ‘must-do’ list all the way back when this trip was a tiny, tiny dream. We gambled with the weather a little as we’d heard the falls were better on a sunny day, so we stayed longer: on the grey days we wandered to the Tres Fronteras viewing point where we could wave across the river at people in Brazil and Paraguay, and also visited an animal sanctuary which provided a personal highlight of my trip so far…

The weather gamble paid off and we were rewarded with a bright day for our visit to the falls. Neither of us are ones for hyperbole but it was a genuinely incredible and breath-taking experience. The falls are the second largest in the world, and there are over 250 waterfalls of various shapes and sizes throughout the park, some of which you can sail under, stand (almost) underneath or spend hours watching the frightening power they hold. 


Because of the constant mist created by the falls, rainbows kept popping up to give a multi-coloured frame for the view, and it wasn’t long before we boarded our boat for a ride headfirst into them. We were under the impression that this was an opportunity to get some super-duper photographs and learn more about the falls, but when the couple next to us stripped down to their underwear we realised we’d signed up for something else entirely (no, not that). As the maniac driver hurled us towards the thundering cascades and swirling spray at a worrying rate, we wished we’d spent more than 50p on each of our ponchos and subsequently spent the rest of the day squeezing waterfall out of our clothes. 

View from the boat


She stood like this for about an hour…

So excited that a rainbow came out of my arse

We spent the best part of 8 hours here and could easily have stayed longer. Sadly this was our last stop in Argentina and we were reluctant to leave a beautiful country behind – one where we’ve eaten well, seen and done lots and become more confident with our Spanish. We have managed to pay for food, taxis, accommodation, medicine and haircuts in our new second language here, which is a long way from the time we had to mime diarrhoea to that poor pharmacist in Arequipa. We’ll be back, we reckon. On crossing the border into Brazil we quickly found that we were back to square one with the language; all we had to help was a dog-eared English-Portuguese dictionary that we found in the cobwebs of a hostel in Buenos Aires, as well as the key phrase ‘eu não falo português’.
Curitiba

Curitiba is a city Brazilians are proud of because it has been carefully planned and has some nice buildings. That’s about all it has so we moved on quickly. 

A building shaped like an eye – the eyelight of our trip to Curitiba. Eyelight.

Florianopolis

We’d heard good things about ‘Floripa’ so ventured south onto the island of Santa Catarina to have a look. The main city is on the edge of the island, close to the mainland, but further in is Lago da Conceiçáo, a huge lake which we quickly fell in love with. The island was small enough for us to cycle around it, visiting beaches that are famed for their surf and sea life. A viewing platform in the south of the island was apparently the best place to see whales swimming close to the shore, so off we headed. It turned out that this viewing platform was nothing more than a lay-by where one man was scratching his nether regions and another was cooking crêpes. We saw no whales. 

Our discarded bikes on Campeche beach after two hours cycling

Originally we were going to stay for 2 nights, but the weather improved so much from overcast to warm sunshine that Lauren almost took her purple fleece off, and we ended up spending four extra days sitting around the pool feeling very relaxed – so much so that we forgot to take any photographs. The Brazilian culture we’d experienced so far seemed to consist of beer (including some really tasty craft ales at a place called Books & Beers), food and music so we were optimistic about what was still to come. 
Rio de Janeiro
Rio is hard to describe because there is so much to do and see here that it would take too long to even try. Obviously, it has the beaches and sunshine, it has walks up mountains to take in panoramas of everything for miles around, it has forests where you can feed monkeys and it has all the bluster of a major city. Simply put, it has everything, and a bit more. It also has an abundance of plastic bags – it doesn’t matter what you buy, whether it is one item or twelve, a bag of vegetables or a packet of Tic Tacs, everything is carefully deposited into its own unique plastic bag for you. We even saw one man buy a bag for life and that was duly placed inside a carrier for him to take away. For a country that is proud of its green approach to the environment, it seemed a bit odd – this annoyed us but I suppose there are bigger things to worry about, like the prospect of Boris Johnson becoming prime minister. 

Marmosets watching us on our walk


In our first few days we took in the Sugarloaf mountain (Pão do Açúcar), and also climbed to the top of the Two Brothers (Dois Irmãos) for a view over much of Rio. To do this we had to get through a favela before starting the hike through the the forest, either by walking or by taking a motorbike taxi. The walk was a worrying prospect but after we’d been thrown onto the back of motorbikes and whizzed up the hill, dodging and weaving through the favela, ignoring pedestrians and speed bumps and sometimes the road, we decided the return journey on foot was a better option. The favelas are actually much safer now than they’ve ever been, what with the World Cup two years ago and the Olympics this year. It’s probably best not to look too far into how this ‘pacification’ has come about though as it sounds quite brutal.

View from the Two Brothers, overlooking Leblon, Ipanema and, in the distance, Copacabana

Copabanana as seen from Sugarloaf

We’ve also had some good nights out in Rio. An area called Lapa reinvents itself at weekends to become a samba street party where you can pick up caipirinhas for a pound, and the bar staff helpfully top up your drinks with tequila or vodka or cachaça until you can’t stand up and you spill your drink over the drummer and he gets mad and the music stops and you get frightened. Every Monday night sees samba played in the street at Pedra do Sal in the centre, and again this has a carnival atmosphere which is a bit different to the Monday night pub quiz at the local. 

Just some of the people who took a liking to Lauren, including a lesbian called Angela, a samba drummer who let Lauren lead the band and a bar lady who yelled VODKA in your ears every 4 minutes


It would be sacrilege to come this far and not spend time on the various beaches, and thankfully the sun came out long enough for us to have a rest and for Lauren to hang up her purple fleece for a few days. Many interesting packages were observed on the beach, ranging from the indiscreet drug dealings (in plastic bags) on Copacabana to the painful-looking bikinis and swimming trunks sported by the lithe figures on Ipanema. 
Other stuff we’ve done:
– visited Escadaria Selaron, a colourful set of steps in Santa Teresa. Each step has been tiled by the Chilean artist Selaron, using tiles from all over the world. This took 22 years to complete before his death in 2012

– collected plastic bags

– went to a market in Uruguaina, the kind of place where you can buy anything and everything, including, as Lauren pointed out, other people’s phones

– washed Lauren’s purple fleece

– ate at por kilo restaurants, where the price you pay is determined by the weight of your plate 

– accidentally bought popcorn-flavoured Tic Tacs. These do not taste nice

Escadaria Selaron


We’ve been in Rio for ten days at the time of writing, and intend on staying at least a week more. We’ve not found Jesus yet, there are walks to do and we need to get to the bottom of how and why cariocas (native Rio folk) can party so hard every night. Maybe their priorities are more about living life instead of living to work; maybe they just don’t care for work at all. Maybe it’s all for us idiot tourists to lap up, but whatever it is, they still provide a functioning and amazing city every day. All of this remains a bit of a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Stuffed inside a plastic bag. 

Buenos Aires, Colonia and Montevideo

May 15th – May 28th

Buenos Aires

Having spent every other day either looking for new accommodation or taking 20 hour buses, we decided to treat ourselves and book an Airbnb for a week in Argentina’s capital. It was a good decision – we could eat breakfast when we wanted, cook with pans that had handles and basically behave like adults instead of the teenage backpackers we clearly aren’t. 

Buenos Aires is a bustling city full of contrasts. We learned that it was largely built on the back of economic booms, when the well-off visited Paris, returned and tried to build their own version of it, or when they invited Italian architects over to design grand palaces. However, Argentina has a background of military coups, times of real economic downturn and a recent history that isn’t very pretty. This affected the capital as some of the aforementioned beautiful buildings were sold off, destroyed in war or razed to the ground to make room for battleship-grey tower blocks that might be more at home in Slough. It is a weird mix, but one that has its own charm. One waiter we spoke to compared Buenos Aires to a salad – lots of influences tossed together. I agreed, saying that some of the buildings were very cucumbersome. A moment of silence followed, and rightly so.

Different styles

Casa Rosada

 
Our frequent walks around the city took us to the Casa Rosada, a pink house where the president works; Recoleta cemetery, a grand resting place for the aristocracy (though how the Flahertys, Donovans and Hales snuck in there, I’m not sure); San Telmo, the cobbled old town; La Boca, which is basically three streets of colour and tango dancers who hide in alleyways before leaping out, grabbing you and wrapping their legs around you, and finally a memorial for those who died in the Falklands War. The majority of Argentinians involved were teenagers and any mention of Islas Malvinas is to be treated with respect. This particular monument stood defiantly opposite a Big Ben replica that was gifted to the country years before.

La Boca


The waiter mentioned before was at a place called Steaks By Luis which had come recommended to us by someone we met in Mendoza. We liked the sound of a night full of steak and we weren’t let down. This was a take on a traditional asado – basically a barbecue but with quality meat and delicious wine instead of burnt sausages and warm beer. The asado is something of a ritual carried out in Argentina every Sunday, opening with a picado (a finger buffet) of cold meats and cheese, then a salad to start before the gorging commences. For a (third) starter, we had three types of sausage, ribs, pork and other bits and pieces (rumours of testicles have yet to be confirmed), before the main course of steak. A dessert followed, after which we vowed to stop eating steak – there simply wasn’t any room left. We were given a surprise at the end of the evening too, as the American couple we’d sat with presented us with a bottle of wine because they’d enjoyed our company so much. We are still in shock (at both the gift and the reason). 

Dinner

Luis, our chef. I asked that my steak would be cooked medium-well; he told me no problem, all the ladies in Argentina have theirs that way too…


We also went to watch a football match, another ritual here. Fortunately, it was the final game of local legend Diego Milito (best known in Europe for scoring twice in Inter Milan’s successful Champions League final in 2010). Milito started his career at Racing, winning the league in 2001, left for Europe then came back to win the league again in 2014. We were greeted by the locals at the ground with a confusing combination of a firm handshake and an even firmer kiss, then settled in to take in the crackling atmosphere, which had fireworks, banners, flags, tears and lots of jumping up and down. The singing and chanting was unbelievable, starting at least an hour before kick off and continuing through half time and beyond the final whistle. At one point the concrete beams we were perched on were wobbling. Poor old Diego was supposed to give a speech but was so overcome by emotion, having become a father earlier in the morning, then scoring one penalty and missing another in the game itself, that he broke down sobbing.

The club are recognising his achievements by renaming the street that leads to the stadium Calle Milito.

We celebrated Diego with a steak. 

Graçias Diego


Colonia del Sacramento

An hour’s ferry took us across the estuary and into Uruguay. Colonia is a tiny, picturesque town which used to be used by smugglers taking their gold and silver out of Bolivia to foreign climes. Today it is just a pretty place frequented by people with selfie sticks who take fourteen pictures of exactly the same thing. We climbed a lighthouse, watched the sunset and then returned to our hostel. Only 3cm of wall separated our heads from the shared bathroom; we immediately started looking for another Airbnb for Montevideo. 

Pretty Colonia


Montevideo

In Montevideo we started to understand more about Uruguay and its culture. It is extremely liberal in comparison with much of South America: one recent president gave his annual salary to charity and another moved out of the presidential palace so that it could be turned into a children’s hospital, there is no recognised national religion, and they’ve legalised abortion, gay marriage and marijuana. This might go some way to explaining why Uruguayans appear so relaxed. And tired. And hungry.

One of several pieces of art that decorated the streets of Montevideo

Aside from a walking tour, the main event was drumming. As a former colony, lots of African slaves lived in Uruguay and today their ancestors remember them through music. Every Sunday night drumming groups meet to play candombe music and practise for Carnaval, which takes place once a year but can be wheeled out for other special occasions (the ‘liberation’ of marijuana was the most recent). We met Hector for a drumming class and weren’t really very good, but we had a laugh and he had a laugh so that’s alright. 

Hector trying to teach old, rhythmless dogs new drum tricks

 

After this we were supposed to go cycling down to the beach but the pull of Mercado del Puerto, a train station converted into a Borough Market-style food hall (and when I say food, I mean steak), was too great so we ended up eating instead. This time we have vowed to keep the previous vow; steak time is over and we’ve committed ourselves to a week of salad. 

We are really looking forward to it. 

Tilcara, Salta, Mendoza and Bariloche

April 30th – May 14th

Tilcara

We’d been excited about Argentina for some time, and our first stop off was the sleepy, dusty town of Tilcara, located in the Quebrada de Humahuaca – a large, cactus-filled area of northern Argentina. Much like many of the places we’ve visited, the town was set against a backdrop of mountains, only these ones were unlike the others – a mosaic of purples, greens and oranges made their presence a little different, as though we were about to walk into a painting. Not a lot happened in Tilcara, other than us accidentally hiring luxury accommodation (curtains and a bath).

We did walk off up into the mountains for a bit, to Garganta del Diablo (the Devil’s Throat), a vast and slightly scary looking canyon, as well as a visiting a natural waterfall, but the short stay here will be most fondly remembered for our first experience of Argentinian steak. It was a real slab of meat, at least 600g, tender and perfectly cooked and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it for as long as I live. After battling this dinner we went to a peña night – very much like an Irish singsong but with dramatic singing and lots of out-of-time clapping (and that was just Lauren).

Waterfall at the top of Tilcara’s mountains


Peña people


Salta

We’d had our eyes on Salta, the largest northern city, for a while, as it was known for good wine, good steaks and good empanadas (a miniature, less stodgy version of a Cornish pasty). The main square, as ever, was overlooked by a beautiful cathedral, only this one was coloured a garish cotton-candy pink. It remained impressive until the clock struck the hour. Instead of a regular, commanding bell, it emitted a frustrated Nokia-esque ringtone across the town. We lost all respect for it after that.

Catedral Basilica de Salta

As the weather was consistently grey and miserable, we couldn’t sun ourselves on the plaza as imagined, so we had to try and do something constructive and educate ourselves.

The first thing we learned was that Argentinians do things on their own terms. It doesn’t matter whether you are halfway across a pedestrian crossing, vehicles will continue to drive. It doesn’t matter that the bus ticket says departure is at 3.40pm, the driver needs a fag and a poo. It doesn’t matter if the shop has been open for only two hours, we’re all tired now so we’re closing and will open again later. Maybe. Because of this new, undiscovered and unfamiliar lifestyle, we lost count of the number of times we were left stood outside restaurants, museums, churches and shops, pressing our noses against the windows like dogs that all the butchers forgot about. The first days in Salta were mainly ones of hunger.

View over Salta

Once we got over ourselves, and got fed, we established a battle plan and educated ourselves betterer, visiting the museums and churches in the narrow windows of time in which they opened. Northern Argentina has links to the Inca period, and the mountains here were used to sacrifice animals as an act of thanks. In 1999, the nearest volcano to Salta, Llullaillaco, was found to have been a place of human sacrifice too, as archaeologists discovered the perfectly preserved bodies of three children dating back to Inca times. These ‘mummies’ are now displayed at a museum in Salta and seeing one of them up close was both unnerving and upsetting.

This sobering experience was offset by our second experience of Argentinian steak. It was a real slab of meat, at least 750g, tender and perfectly cooked and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it for as long as I live.

Mendoza

As with Salta, we’d had high hopes for Mendoza, as it is the wine capital of the world, so much so that the hostels give wine away each evening. Also as with Salta, the weather wasn’t great, and we’d arrived around three weeks after the harvests, so all of the vineyards were bare.

Nevertheless, we persevered and managed to drink wine, visiting three of the 1500 or so bodegas (a boutique, an organic and a national) in a day and tasting some really delicious drinks. Not only that, but the owners were all really lovely people, especially the handsome man at the final bodega who gave a fellow guest a free bottle of wine simply because she was from Leicester and they’d done so well this year. It wasn’t beneath me to try and explain who Middlesbrough were and what they too had achieved but he wasn’t for the turning.

Wines


Vines

We also visited the beautiful Parque San Martin at the far end of the city, where we cycled around and broke the chains of our bikes and looked at more bird life. The following day we zip-lined across the Andes which was good fun, and we saw a cast of falcons swooping above and below us. My excitement at this surprised both Lauren and myself; I think I love birds now.

An unknown bird pecking wood in Parque San Martin


There she goes!


And him too

The hostel was one of the nicest we’d stayed in (free wine can colour your judgment) and it was also the first time we’d met fellow travellers for what seemed like an age, so we spent a few evenings having a chat with Dutch, French, Venezuelan and American folk. All of them had some kind of horror story about how they’d been robbed or attacked, and the Venezuelan chap picked up a call from his sister who had just witnessed police killings outside the family shop (this is normal for Venezuela apparently; the country is in turmoil). This left us counting our blessings and we were forced to withhold our story about the room with no curtains, or the the one about the massive pile of crumbs under the bed, as their significance seemed to dwindle.

Bariloche

Having spent two quiet spells in cities we changed our plans to go to a third (Córdoba) and headed further south to Bariloche, the start of Patigonia and somewhere we’d heard good things about from other people. It’s kind of a cross between a Scandinavian village and the Lake District: most of the buildings are log cabin style, all of the shops sell walking gear, and beer and chocolate top the menus of every establishment.

Mamuschka,: the best chocolate we’ve ever had

Bariloche town square

We quickly made ourselves aware of the best pubs and sampled a couple – they’re really small, cosy affairs, just like the best ones in England’s Lake District – before having our third experience of Argentinian steak. It was a real slab of meat, at least 500g, tender and perfectly cooked and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it for as long as I live.

One of the reasons we visited Bariloche was to sample some fresh air away from the fumes of the cities, and we found that in abundance. A walk up Cerro Campaniero led to amazing panoramic views across the lakes, including a volcano called El Tronadero – the Thunderer – which is the best name for a volcano I’ve ever heard. Another walk took us to Catedral, a ski resort in the mountains. From here we walked (the wrong way, but enjoyable nonetheless) through the hills, past a couple of condors and down to Lake Gutierrez on the other side. Once more the views were picture perfect.

View from Cerro Campaniero overlooking Lago Nahuel Hapui


Shore of Lago Gutierrez

We’d hastily booked to go to Buenos Aires after our three nights in Bariloche, but if we could reverse time we’d change that and have stayed there, possibly forever. It is a naturally beautiful place that could be explored for weeks, and felt like a home from home after a day. More than that, the locals are all really friendly, helping us on our way and advising us where to go next. At least, we think that’s what they were doing – we don’t understand Spanish.

Next stop, Buenos Aires. UTFB.